A Measure of Productivity

measure-success How do you decide–day by day or week by week–whether you’ve been productive? When we work for someone else, the tasks are spelled out one way or another. Meeting deadlines, reaching the bottom of an in box, completing a project, preparing for a presentation. We often spend the day answering phone calls and emails and leave at 5 (or 6) p.m. knowing we’ll be paid for a full day of work.

pieces-add-upPerhaps, as I once did, you spend your evenings and weekends writing (or pursuing some creative project) hoping one day you’ll eventually get to quit your “day job.” Or, perhaps you are now a self-employed or freelance writer (or artist or musician or …) and so your progress fall squarely on your own shoulders.

How do you measure that your time is well spent? Writers often talk of word count. When I coach writers this concern for daily output seems to cause tremendous anxiety. It’s true that a book length project is especially daunting. (Not to mention the misconception that it’s completed in two rounds–draft and revision–when my published projects have taken anywhere from five and up.)

It’s rare that I track my word count during each writing session so when asked, “How much do you write each day? Each week?” I have no idea. I write as I always have–allowing sentences and paragraphs and pages to stack up. In the end, you are not “done” when you reach the 70,000 word target for your novel anyway. You simply have your draft and then can begin the real work of shaping it into a finished product.

onestepjpgIt wasn’t until I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November and then CampNaNoWriMo, that I realized why my coaching clients were stuck on this word count thing. For NaNoWriMo the goal is to draft 50,000 words in 30 days. That equates to 1667 words per day. That amounts to 6 or 7 manuscript pages (double-spaced) each day.

onestepattime Now I get how overwhelming a focus on word count can be to new writers. Now I understand why the thought of sitting down to write can be daunting. Now I see how important it is to place output into perspective. Do this: First, sit down to write. Write a scene and note how long it took. One hour? Thirty minutes? Fifteen minutes? Now, look at the output. How many pages? How many words? It’s true that every scene and every writing session will vary. But knowing what you accomplished in whatever time it took will help you see the words adding up. Second, ask yourself how many sessions you can fit into your week. Two? Three? Even one will help you make progress.

During CampNaNoWriMo in April, the word goal is flexible. It’s the end of season for me and very busy so I selected the lowest goal: 10,000 words. I wanted the challenge to make time to work on a new novel idea even in the midst of other commitments. Putting this into perspective, I needed to write 334 words per day to “win.” That’s only 1.5 pages (double-spaced MS format) OR not even a full single-spaced typed page. But, I didn’t plan to write every day. The first weekend, I wrote as I normally did and produced just over 2,000 words in one sitting of several hours. That was 1/5 the month’s goal and the equivalent of writing for 6 days. Setting time aside twice per week, I met my goal. (Actually, I ended up meeting this goal plus wrote scenes for a second work-in-progress for over another 5000 words.)

wordstackI put this into perspective, thinking: If I can write everyday (on this one project), imagine what I’d accomplish in a month! When you do the math and put your productivity into perspective, it’s a lot easier to see what you’re capable of–which makes it easier to commit to writing on a regular basis. In the end, it’s not how many words or pages you write per day or per week; it’s that the paragraphs, scenes, and pages add up. Getting started is the hard part. Once you do, it becomes easier. Until you do, commit to writing just one sentence a day. (I’ll bet you’ll find it hard to write just one.)

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File under: Encouragement

SmileI found it, though I hadn’t realized it was lost. It was tucked in the back of an infrequently used file drawer and browned with age at the edges. The label had long ago dried and peeled off. I was weeding and shifting files anyway and tossed the entire thing toward the recycling bin. Luckily, I missed and the contents spilled onto my office floor.

A few greeting cards and photos caught my eye. This was enough for me to paw through the other papers, some still inside the brittle folder: jokes that had circulated around the office I’d worked in (back before we began “spamming” friends on email with such things), MSS with encouraging comments from my crit group, champagne rejection letters, print outs of emailed messages with an author I’d met at a conference, and a copy of my first ever acceptance letter–for two items at once, to appear in different issues of a children’s magazine.

perseverenceI gathered the spilled contents, returning all to the worn folder and placed it in the “keep” pile. This was my “smile file,” as the faded ink indicated, and I’d long ago forgotten about it. I remembered creating it when I was just starting as a freelance writer. I got the idea after reading an article in a writing magazine by an oft-published writer who had created a “warm fuzzies folder.” She placed in it any items that would boost her spirit when repeated rejections got her down.

In my folder, I added whatever would bring a smile to my lips and create a metaphorical flotation device for the storms of publishing.

After I’d shifted the file drawers and thinned their contents, I returned to the smile file to look more closely at the items within. It was interesting to see how they changed over the course of a decade as technology became more a part of our lives. Handwritten notes left by a roommate or co-worker, motivational quotes, an encouraging card from my mother gave way to computer print-outs or flyers for a crit group or book signing to photos and name tags from writing conferences and presentations. Tucked in the bottom near the back was the file label that had fallen off. “Forward File” was neatly typed on it.

what-nextYes, this file had provided the smiles and encouragement to help me continue moving forward as I acquired publishing credits and built my freelance career. The contents kept me going.
I closed the folder and filed it at the front of the two-drawer cabinet next to my desk. I’ll add some recent items to it and make a mental note to flip through the contents occasionally. After all, we can all use a little encouragement now and again, a reminder to keep treading water toward warmer currents.

What do you do to keep your spirits up when life’s storms rain down?

Breaking through Blocks

Alcott-sailDuring a recent creativity for writers workshop I presented, it occurred to me that the publishing industry is riddled with negative phrasing and insinuations. Editors send rejections in response to submissions, people talk about “failure,” and both pre-published and published works get critiqued. During writing workshops I often address the anxiety and fear newbie writers experience and discuss the “inner critic” (or “gremlins” as my graduate professors labeled the negative self-talk). Both these gremlins and publishing terms can cause blocks (for writers at all levels) and delays in getting started. Many writers fear what others will think of the finished piece though there is not yet anything to shape into a polished product).

In fact, for this creativity workshop, one of the first activities (which I have adapted successfully with writers from grade 4 through college freshman) was to create a visual representation of that inner critic. (I wrote previously about this activity in “Gag the Inner Critic.”) Later we were to write a letter to that critic, and after more activities and info (at the end of the workshop) I planned to have them write a response to that letter in the voice of the critic. The idea was to work through the blocks to creativity and put a positive spin on the “negative” views we often place on the creative process. We never got there–because one participant didn’t want to do half the activities and another took issue with the “negativity” behind the label critic/gremlin. The idea behind all the activities was to allow inhibitions to drop away and OPEN ourselves up to the ideas and creativity we each possess.

“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart & to turn on your creativity.
There’s a light inside you.”
~Judith Jamison

In order to tap into our creativity, most of us need to learn to silence the inner critic (or whatever label you want to place on the editor in your head). During the initial creative stages, we need to be free to play with ideas (without yet deciding whether they are worth pursuing or not). We need to knock down the obstacles in our path, whether they are believing in our own creativity or wrestling with finding time to write (or draw, or paint, or sculpt, or find new solutions to old dilemmas). In the midst of the workshop, I didn’t realize that despite getting stuck on the label I used for one of the biggest obstacles writers face (the inner editor or critic), one participant was mired in “self-limitations” (essentially a block to creativity, perhaps even a gremlin scampering beneath the surface and inhibiting creativity).

“Any little bit of experimenting in self-nurturance
is very frightening for most of us.”
~Julia Cameron

Using a long list of activities, from looking at the world around us with fresh eyes to playing with nouns and verbs and words, the participants worked with tools designed to spark creativity. There are two types of thinking important to creativity and which easily deepen our writing : divergent thinking (in which we see new uses for common objects) and associative thinking (in which we link two thoughts, experiences, items, words, etc to create new ways of seeing something). Associative thinking, especially, is important for writers because this is the type of thinking we use to create analogies and paint vivid pictures using few words (think metaphor, simile, and comparisons for description).

 ducklingsIt’s easier to let go of fears we have about our writing or being “good enough” to get published if we focus on  the joy behind creating and do what’s needed to stifle the gremlins, inner critic, or joy snatchers. (I previously covered this topic in Find Your Writing Joy.) Having writing and creativity exercises on hand to get the juices flowing doesn’t hurt either. Some of my favorite activities come from the following books (dog-eared and within easy reach on my bookshelf):  Writing Done the Bones by Natalie Goldberg;  Pencil Dancing by Mari Messer; and The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron.

May you break through your blocks for happy writing (or creating)!

Looking Back to Move Forward

I’m making my list and checking it twice. Yes, I know Christmas is over. No, I haven’t overindulged in eggnog. And, no, I haven’t bumped my head and now think I’m Saint Nick. But I am creating goals for the coming year.

Reflecting on where you’ve been in order to make plans for where you’d like to be is something I learned to do right out of college. I landed a job at a mid-sized corporation that was rapidly growing (and have management in their early thirties), and every year we had “Make It Happen” days to plan corporate, department, and personal goals.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those "Make It Happen" corporate events.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those “Make It Happen” corporate events.

I learned to begin by making four lists: accomplishments, failures/misses, big dreams, SAM goals (that last stands for specific, achievable, and measurable). Over the decades I have adapted this “process” to include a fifth list. It’s my first list.

1) Begin with gratitude. List everything you can think of–great and small. Challenge yourself to make this as long as possible. Aim for 25 items. For example, I list:

  • the silence of the early morning on a dew-covered golf course (I can see Tee 3 from my lanai)
  • an abundance of westerly sunshine in my living room every afternoon
  • books in every room
  • my health (no meds)
  • watching wildlife on my walks
  • listening to birdsong in the mornings
  • listening to frogs and crickets in the evenings

Once you have a few things on paper it becomes easier to think of things and add items.

Think of all the "victories" great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

Think of all the “victories” great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

2) Make an accomplishments list. Again, list any size achievement (and you can look at goals lists from other years to do this). And, I get silly–listing minor events just for the fun of it. For example, I have a variety for my list:

  • interviewed about The Right To Counsel for CitiesTour program on BookTV/CSPAN2 (a highlight of my year)
  • getting involved in Marco Island Writers group
  • conducting seven summer reading program library visits
  • reorganizing my office
  • finally recycling my dad’s cellphones
  • finding a new venue for writing workshops

These two lists alone can go far in setting a positive mind frame for the next steps. Making these lists are quick ways to reflect on the past year. They also help in jogging memory, especially small items from early in the year. (Of course, I have the benefit of reading these items in my journal and planner.)

3) Make a Dream Big list. Spend time thinking of and listing what you’d like to accomplish in the new year. Think of this as a preliminary goals list. This is for your eyes only, so dream big. Write each as if it has happened, (as if this IS your accomplishments list for 2015.) Don’t allow the inner critic to tell you your dream is impractical, unattainable, a pipe dream. (This IS the dream big list.) For these second and third lists, I challenge myself to come up with more than 15 items on each. In fact, I try to outdo the year before, so this year I’m aiming for 25.

4) Disappointments List. Now you’ll make a list of the goals you didn’t reach. While this may not be as fun as the previous lists, it should be enlightening. Just do yourself a favor and do not judge. (Gag that inner critic.) This list is easy for me since I have a journal ornament which has become a tradition. Each year when I take down the tree, I list my hopes for the new year. Sadly, a few of the SAME goals have been listed for the past four years. Don’t dwell on the negative–this list is to help you gain perspective. The point of all these lists combined is to help you reflect on the past year–the ups and the downs. The misses and disappointments can help you create both realistic goals and the desire to follow through.
Since I have done the above for several years, I have the benefit of looking at past lists to see that I have made progress–a LOT of progress n fact.

5) Create New Year’s Goals. Now that you’ve made all four lists, from the fanciful (dreams) and fun (accomplishments) to the misses and disappointments, you should now set five goals. But this is key: not only will you get a goal, you will also decide what steps are needed to achieve each goal. And you will then create an action plan for each step. It helps to think of this as creating short-term and long-term goals. The action steps help make each goal achievable. (If you can’t figure how you will take steps to meet a goal, it is probably not attainable–at this point.)

Dream

The difference between a dream and goal is the ACTION you take to make it so. (Advice shared with my college FYE students.)

It also alerts you to a goal that is dependent upon other people for you to achieve it. For example, getting an agent and receiving a huge publishing contract is dependent on a lot of factors out of your control. When you create the actions steps to meet this “goal” you’ll realize that you can do a lot of things that will move you toward achieving publication (polishing your manuscript, researching agents who rep your type of book), but they have no guaranteed results. NOTE here that these “unrealistic” goals can remain on the dreams list. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of getting a great agent and a huge contract (and according to The Secret, daydreaming about it creates the positive vibrations to help it manifest). But the point of setting clear and attainable goals is so you can take action to achieving them.

Once you’ve created action steps, your goals list will be longer than 5 items (another reason I aim for a smaller list of goals). They will also likely be specific, attainable, and measurable because you’ve used your four lists to reflect on the past year to ensure your make progress in the new year.

Have fun, happy writing, and best wishes for productive and prosperous 2015!

5 Lessons From a Writing Challenge

In-class writing prompts are incorporated into all of my writing workshops. Depending on their creative style, participants either love the challenge or hate it. Some writers thrive on receiving a story prompt and having a time limit for coming up with a creative response on the spot. Others need to think about it, allowing the possibilities to simmer and evolve before they’re ready to write. These are the participants who grumble about “writing on demand.” Still, sharing afterward and hearing how each writer tackled the challenge remains one the most enjoyable parts of each session (according to the evaluations on the last day).

The challenge of writing "on demand" pushes beyond the comfort zone.

The challenge of writing “on demand” pushes beyond the comfort zone.

Stretching beyond our comfort zone often ends with positive results. It keeps us from stagnating. It can also serve as a creative shot in the arm. So, for writers, challenging ourselves–whether with a different writing style, new prompts, or a writing contest–is important.

This is one of the reasons I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year. I probably write more than the word count goal each month on all my projects combined, so the challenge for me is in drafting 50,000 words on a new, single project (in addition to what I normally write). I also tend to write to an outline–or at the very least use my “bullet and build” approach. But for NaNoWriMo I’m working as a “pantser” (that’s someone who writes “by the seat of the pants” instead of planning).

It’s the middle of week 2, not quite halfway, and I’ve already learned a lot. The lessons are important for new writers to remember, too:

1.  Just write. The idea is to get thoughts to paper and do it on a regular basis. I took on the challenge to make daily progress on my pet project. The key for new writers:

Create a regular writing routine and stick to it (even this means writing every Saturday or finding 20 minutes each day).

2.  This is clay. Drafts are meant to be shaped and reshaped. In my case (this hot NaNoWriMo mess), huge sections will be loped off and reassembled. But, not until later. So, don’t get too hung up on making scenes perfect–or even keeping all the writing “rules” in line. This is only the first step toward a polished manuscript.

Accept the fact there will be revisions (and likely more than one round). It’s part of the process.

Where does the ACTION take place?

Where does the ACTION take place?

3.  Think in scenes. In order to make the word-count goal for the month, I’ve settled into writing whatever scene is coming to me. (I’m not worrying about linear “order.”) As I focus on scenes, I consider what details about the characters, setting, and events the reader needs to know at this point the story. This helps eliminate writing out or “explaining” back story that will likely be cut later. I can always add during revision.

All stories and characters have a past but the reader doesn’t need to know every detail (and always sprinkled in, never all at once).

4.  Don’t get bogged down in technicalities. As a planner I like to have my facts in place before I begin. What snakes would they plausibly encounter in the woods of North Carolina? What is a typical day’s schedule like at a parochial school? At this point, though, it’s action I’m aiming for. What they ate for breakfast is not as important as what they do to move toward story resolution. Whenever I’m tempted to stop writing and check something on the internet, I instead use brackets and write a brief note to address during revision.

Description is good, but don’t get carried away (See lesson #3).

Create a goal and aim for it to grow from the challenge.

Create a goal and aim for it to grow from the challenge.

5.  Don’t compare your progress with everyone else. We are each individuals with unique voice, style, and creative approach. These writing buddies are not me with my goals (and juggling my life). Likewise, I don’t know what they are dealing with in their lives, so any comparison would likely be apples to oranges. Best to skip it. I’d rather focus on racking up the words to meet my goal (and with luck meet the overall goal of 50,000 words in 30 days).

Don’t compare your writing skill, progress, or ideas with other writers either. We are all different writers and different people. Embrace that.

Good writers never quit learning and developing their craft and growing in skill. Pushing beyond our comfort zone is a way to ensure we continue improving. So, embrace the challenge and write. 

Set Boundaries to Limit Distractions

“I enjoy writing in the desert. There are no distractions

such as telephones, theaters, opera houses, and gardens.”

~Agatha Christie

Boy can I relate to Agatha! “Life gets in the way” moments are overflowing the brim on my cup of life this month. Emails from former workshop students looking for quick answers, neighbors wanting to meet for coffee, community and building maintenance that either create excessive noise or inconveniences (such as needing to move vehicles or preparing for a water shut-off all morning), phone calls to change scheduled appointments (which disrupts everything else). The list goes on, but we all have these problems to deal with. Life happens.

Set boundaries and stick to them.

Set boundaries and stick to them.

The trick is in setting boundaries. This is difficult for writers, whether you are working your craft on a part-time, full-time, or “whenever I can grab the time” basis. If, like Agatha, you know you’re going to be distracted, then go somewhere to minimize those distractions. Okay, most of us don’t have the luxury of retreating to a second house or a hotel, especially for an extended stay. So, the answer lies in setting boundaries at home. This is as simple as carving out an hour or two of time to dedicate to writing. Depending on how you work, these don’t need to be back-to-back hours. Progress is progress and it adds up over time. I recently declared Mondays my “writing days” and I now focus first on my own project (before shifting gears to work on client projects). I allow no meetings or appointments on Mondays. When someone tries to set appointments for Mondays I apologize and inform him or her that the “slots are filled.” They are. By my projects.

Remember that when you set boundaries, you do not need to provide an explanation. Have the PTA president asking you to help with an event? Great, but as a parent you have a job to take care of your family along with whatever other hats you may wear. Simply say, “Oh, I’d love to but I’m not free at that time.” Yes, I’ve known some pushy people who might ask, “Really? Doing what?” Very rude, but you still do not owe any explanation (even if you were simply planning on taking a long soak in the tub)!

Consider your choices and choose a path.

Consider your choices and choose a path.

If you feel guilty, first remember that they want you to accommodate them, and second, what you have planned is important too. It’s about choices and you need to choose to take your writing seriously. You can always say you have an assignment to complete or a project to finish (because you do; your writing project). I had one pushy client who hinted many times that I should make her project a priority and even suggested I work on her computer at her house! I restated my unavailability until she asked to know about my other clients. I smiled, and said, “Now that’s not fair.” I paused and then jokingly added, “I mean, I suppose I could tell you, but then I’d have to . . .” (I didn’t need to finish that old cliché. She got the hint that it was none of her business!)

Guard the time you set aside.

Guard the time you set aside.

When setting boundaries, people often get upset that they are not getting their own way. This is okay. It’s part of the power struggle in maintaining boundaries. Their hope is that you will bend your boundaries to accommodate them. Think of young children who push to the limit to see how much they can get away with. As parents, we stand firm. As business people (and yes, you should think of your writing as a business), we need to stand firm, too. I have never made appointments with dentists or repair people when I could “nudge” them into a time that was the better for me. Whoever makes the schedule suggests the closest open time slot: “I have an 11:30 a.m. or, the next time on that date is 3:30 p.m.” I choose the time based on what’s available. We need to work with all the people in our lives to do the same and guard what little time we manage to set aside for our writing projects.

The effort you put into maintaining boundaries will pay off. During the guarded hours you create for your writing, you can ignore potential distractions, just as Agatha Christie did in writing in the desert. Over time, those distractions that are part of daily life will feel less invasive because you will see progress on your writing, and page by page you move closer to your goal\.

Proud to Read Banned Books

bannedbooksI’m climbing onto the soapbox for my annual speech about banned books. We all have the right to our opinions, and for most of the countries in the world, this includes voicing these opinions. If we can write and talk about our views, why should we not be allowed to make our own decisions regarding the stories we choose to read? This is why I “celebrate the freedom to read” every year. Besides, as a published author I’m against censorship. (Though, sadly, as a teacher I must at times “censor” excerpts read aloud in class due to the topics; after all, I feel it appropriate to consider the sensibilities of the other students, but this is the topic for another time.)

40bannedbooksWhat irks me the most about the lists of “censored” books (which include both those books challenged and those that are banned and removed from library shelves), is the reasoning behind the “complaints.” I often wonder whether the books have been fully read by the person complaining. When I worked at a library years ago, I was also baffled by written complaints from parents about a book. Clearly, they did not want their child(ren) to read these books and that is perfectly acceptable (see my first few sentences above); however, to make this “decision” for every other reader is the issue I have with such challenges. Perhaps I’m “offended” by the saccharine and shallow reading material you choose. But I don’t restrict you from reading it. See, this is the central point of the freedom to read–choosing your books.

Here are just some of the “reasons” behind books being challenged: “offensive language” (according to whom?); “sexually explicit” and includes “homosexuality”; “violence” (do you watch much TV?); “unsuited to age group.” This year, graphic novels top the list for children’s books included. In fact, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins for challenged do to “anti-ethnic; anti-family; insensitivity; offensive language; occult/satanic; violence.” Do you realize how many families enjoyed this movie (which followed the book’s plot line very well) and had discussions about the heroes-readissues raised in the story? For The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, the reasons include: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. If you’ve read this book, you know Alexie is Native American and the book is about living on Rez. Is someone offended by the portrayal of whites in this book or of Native Americans? If it’s the latter, then the book needs to be read not censored. The main character is trying to break the cycle of poverty of his family. Incidentally, many of the children’s books that make the list include “unsuited to age group.” Hello? These children’s titles are juvenile literature published by the children’s division of a major publishing house and I’m supposed to believe that those editors and publishers don’t know the target audience?

The first time I reviewed the list of banned and challenged books from the past, I was shocked to see so many books I loved, some that I’ve only read because they were required reading in literature classes. Many have changed my views on life because I read them. Here are a few I read in school (and am rereading while tutoring high school students): The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (1925); The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939); The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906); To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and so many more.

As an author, my mind whirls through potential story ideas based on how my life might be different if I had never been exposed to literature deemed “harmful” by some other reader. Even this finds it way into my writing, in a world I’m creating where Kaeylene lives in a time in her world when some others decided the who and what of daily life for all (and of course, she fights against this “norm”). Thankfully, it’s only a fantasy and I travel there to continue writing it on my terms.